A growing number of city homeowners are discovering the joys – and security – of living in one of Britain's 15 national parks. They are content to pay a hefty premium for the privilege, too. Buyers know that having cashed in a profit on a city home in London or the South-east, they can invest in a national park, in what is another rising market, and enjoy some of the country's finest locations in the certainty that park authorities will prevent any excessive further development.
As a result, park properties command an average price premium of 48 per cent (compared with homes in the same county but outside park boundaries), with values three times higher in hotspots such as the Lake District, according to Halifax research.
The New Forest is the most expensive national park – homes there cost £465,000 on average – while in the past five years, prices have risen fastest in the newly formed South Downs National Park, jumping 30 per cent and seriously outperforming London.
There are 13 national parks in England and Wales and two in Scotland. Homes in the best rural settings are the most sought-after, says Mark Warford, director of property-finding company County Homesearch. "National parks have kudos and allure; these days there are few places where you cannot hear the sound of a main road."
Quintessential heritage villages are also desirable, as people want the best of both worlds – shops and amenities on the doorstep, plus a wonderful landscape all around them. While bargain-hunting homebuyers might be tempted to head for Snowdonia, which is the cheapest national park, Londoners who want a convenient commute or a weekend getaway are likely to focus their search on the New Forest, South Downs, Norfolk Broads or Exmoor.
DOWNS ON THE UP
South Downs is Britain's newest national park, designated in April this year. It stretches across Sussex and Hampshire, from Eastbourne to Winchester, covering 627 square miles and 183 parishes. Unlike other national parks, which are set in wild and remote landscapes, the South Downs is close to large conurbations – Brighton and Portsmouth as well as London – plus Gatwick and M25 commuter towns such as Guildford.
About 108,000 people live within the park boundaries. Estate agents report a rise in the number of buyers from Surrey and London suburbs to places such as Midhurst, which is in the heart of the park, and other popular Downs villages and hamlets, including East Dean, Alfriston, Litlington, Burton and Chithurst. Strict planning rules help to boost property values, and Nimby sentiment is widespread. But new-builds are not automatically outlawed, while sympathetic refurbishments and the tasteful conversion of agricultural buildings are often welcomed because of the huge demand for housing. The park authority expects about 4,000 planning applications a year.
The delightful county town of Lewes, the biggest in the park, is popular with London and Brighton emigrés and has several niche developments in the pipeline. These include modern villas and live-work units (contact Lewes Estates on 01273 477377). Clayton Mills is a scheme of four-bedroom houses on the edge of the village of Hassocks. It is pretty but less picturesque (and therefore cheaper) than the nearby heritage villages of Hurstpierpoint and Ditchling. Clayton to Offham Escarpment, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, runs through the parish, as does the River Adur. Ancient Butchers Wood is a popular recreational area. Many homes have views across the South Downs. Trains to Victoria take 52 minutes and the Gatwick Express stops at Hassocks station six times a day during peak hours. Prices from £409,950. Call Barratt on 01273 846418.
FOREST OF DREAMS
New Forest is the most densely populated national park, with 34,000 people living in its 219 square miles, which stretch from Ringwood to Southampton Water, and from Whiteparish to Hurst Castle, built by Henry VIII and located at the end of a two-mile shingle spit.
Homes with easy coastal access are most in demand (properties in some villages rarely come on to the market). The major centres are Lyndhurst, Brockenhurst and Lymington. The latter, a Georgian market town right on the water's edge, has two marinas, a ferry service to the Isle of Wight, boutiquey cobbled streets and a quaint branch line to Waterloo.
Burley is a classic village with a cricket green and a river meandering through it. Everton, Sway, Beaulieu, Milford and Pennington are also popular addresses.
"Londoners find their money goes quite far in the New Forest; you can pick up very decent apartments for under £200,000," according to estate agent Burkmars (01590 676111).
Modern apartments on the waterfront in Lymington are being sold by local developer Pennyfarthing Homes. Prices from £550,000. The same company has a scheme of six detached bungalows with garages in the village of Hordle. Prices are from £399,500 (01425 639393).
MOOR FOR YOUR MONEY
"One of the joys of living in a national park is that you can reconnect with the seasons," says Robin Thomas of estate agent Strutt & Parker in Exeter, Devon, which covers the Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks.
"The two moors are very different. Dartmoor is famous for its dramatic, sometimes frightening landscape, as the weather changes from the heat of the summer to the mists of the autumn and the snow of winter."
Exmoor, by contrast, is softer, with deep wooded valleys and a coastline running along its northern boundary, and is known as the "hunting playground of England". The deep hedgerows are covered in primroses and bluebells in spring and turn russet and gold in autumn.
"More and more people have holiday cottages on the moors because of improving communications – now two and a half hours to London from Exmoor – while the internet allows some people to work from home. Others are seeking a complete change of lifestyle, with families buying land for ponies and the good life."
So intense is demand for properties – up to 80 per cent of homes go to "incomers" – that the park authority has considered banning second-homers from buying. The debate flares every few years but the argument that a ban would trigger a sharp fall in property prices tends to prevail.
Certainly the moors are not a place for townies. "If you are planning to live on the moor, you will probably need a four-wheel drive, especially if winters like the last two become more frequent," says Thomas. "And you need to plan ahead if it's a 15-mile round-trip to the nearest shop to buy a pint of milk."
So living near a good town is high on the list of must-haves. Dulverton, on the edge of Exmoor, where the River Barle runs, does not disappoint. "You can find most things here. We always book a family lunch before Christmas at Woods restaurant, near the church and town square, and afterwards dip into the local shops, which my wife calls The King's Road," adds Thomas.
Other top towns are Tiverton, Barnstaple and South Molton. Coastal developments include Gara Rock, a low-rise scheme of apartments and cottages in a stunning clifftop setting close to Salcombe. Prices from £550,000. Call Coast Group on 0845 6029311.
WHERE WILL THE NEXT NATIONAL PARK BE?
The Chilterns, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is tipped as the next area likely for national park status. The hills stretch across Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, and contain many villages convenient for London commuting. Now may be the time to start property hunting.